Publisher: Arksys Games
Developer: Ark System Works
Release Date: September 16, 2008
When you think of your preferred weapon for hand-to-hand combat, what comes to mind? How about an oversized mix of a chainsaw and a lightsaber that can double as a hoverboard? If so, then I may have found the game for you. Battle Fantasia is a port of the Japanese-only arcade fighter from Arksys, the company behind the extravagant Guilty Gear franchise. While many fighting game fans will perk up their ears when they hear Guilty Gear, this game does not have the same production value. Instead, what we have here is more of a side project that looks fantastic but feels like an old-school fighter, with only a few combos for each character. As a result, it's very easy to pick up and play, but it enters the North American market with virtually zero target audience. Battle Fantasia never saw the light of day in U.S. arcades, so it has a tremendous uphill battle against the likes of Dead or Alive, Soul Calibur and Virtua Fighter for a spot in your fighting game collection. Unfortunately, Battle Fantasia isn't quite up to the task.
Battle Fantasia's strongest point by far is its art style and direction, which sets it apart from other fighting games. The title incorporates an art style that's cheerful, colorful, vibrant and clearly influenced by anime, but most importantly, the fantastic character design just draws you in. There are only 12 characters in the game, but that means that more time was spent on making each character very unique. There's only one case where characters are somewhat similar in appearance, but they play and have personalities that are quite different from one another. Each character has a pretty good amount of detail and fits into a different character stereotype: slow and heavy hitting, quick and weak, etc.
The characters and environments are clearly rendered in 3-D, but the action takes place on a 2-D plane, which puts Battle Fantasia in the category of a 2.5-D fighter. The characters look pretty good, but there's not very much action going on in the environments, so they tend to look bland and uninteresting.
From an audio standpoint, you probably won't be able to understand a word of what's being said during the battles. Thankfully outside of battle, any of the Japanese voice acting is subtitled with an excellent English translation. The music is entirely forgettable, which is somewhat disappointing since the music in the Guilty Gear franchise is extraordinary. (No, Guilty Gear music doesn't go well with this game. I tried.)
As with any arcade fighter making its way to home consoles, simply porting the arcade mode to consoles doesn't cut it. To have any kind of staying power beyond 30 minutes, a fighting game needs to have a multitude of game modes, a hefty amount of unlockables, and the gameplay to make you want to keep coming back. There was clearly effort to get all three of these in place, but none of the additions for the console release of Battle Fantasia can really stand up to the other fighters on the Xbox 360.
Battles in Battle Fantasia are meant to have a storybook feel to them. Instead of rounds, each battle is referred to as a chapter. Once things get going, you'll find Battle Fantasia is a fairly easy game to pick up and play, even though there are plenty of moderately complex, technical fighting ideas going on ? such as parrying, counters, and the heat-up system where you spend a built-up super move meter for a quick burst of strength. Every character has combos that they can build up, but every character only has a few moves when you bring up the command list, and all of these fall squarely into fairly basic moves. These are the kind of move sets we saw back in the days of Street Fighter II. As a result, the battles become less of a button memorization contest and more about timing, deciding when to bring out your stronger attacks and knowing how to counter your opponent's moves.
Battle Fantasia has tried to pass itself off as something of a fighter with RPG elements. Initially, this had me very interested in seeing how this was handled, but the only RPG elements come from the fantasy setting and the health system. In Battle Fantasia, all characters are not made equal in terms of the beating they can take. Each character goes into battle with a number of health points, which are shown below the health bar. Each attack he makes deals a visible number of damage. In the most lopsided of circumstances, this can mean that some characters, such as the gigantic dwarf Donvalve, can go into a fight with about three times as much health as his opponent. This can make it seem like Donvalve would have a huge advantage, but once you've picked up the gameplay basics, the differing health bars don't play that large of a role in the fight.
The main offering of Battle Fantasia is the story mode, which was created for the console version. You can take any of the game's characters through his or her own personal journey. Fights in this mode only last for one round, and there are usually only about 10 fights per story, but due to the lengthy amount of narrative between each fight, each story can take up to an hour to complete. In typical fantasy fare, each character's tale discusses the history and connection to the other fighters, often explaining the many reasons for the conflicts. Some of the stories are fairly interesting and can be genuinely funny at times. If you're a completionist, there are multiple routes that each story can take, depending on your actions in certain fights. For some characters, it's obvious, such as using your dance move against the fighter with whom your character is in love. For others, it's baffling. How is anyone expected to figure out that you need to successfully taunt your opponent five times over the course of a single battle?
Additional gameplay modes are: standard arcade mode, survival, time attack, practice and versus. None of these really break the mold in any way and simply serve their purpose. There are a few Achievements related to each mode, if you spend the time to master each respective mode. What usually keeps people coming back to console versions of these games is unlockables; Battle Fantasia is a bit lacking in this area, with only a small number of illustrations to unlock as you play through the game.
If you have a tremendous amount of patience, you can try to take Battle Fantasia online to find somebody else to play with, but you would much better off in just dragging a friend to your residence and making him play with you. The online community for Battle Fantasia does not exist. For the first two weeks of Nov. 2008, according to the online leaderboards, only about 120 people have been online. Breaking it down to a weekly level gets even worse. The week of Nov. 18, I saw only 13 names on the Xbox Live leaderboards.
There's fun to be had with Battle Fantasia. It's a title that's reasonably easy to pick up and play but has enough technical depth to take some time to master. There isn't enough depth in the content and fighting to appeal to the hardcore fighting game fan. Compared to the other big fighters on the market today, Battle Fantasia is a fun little distraction, but with a limited (although brilliantly designed) cast of characters, dead online community, and what feels like a subpar offering of content. Even at the "reduced" price of $50, Battle Fantasia is a hard recommendation. If you've got a rainy day you want to spend with a friend by beating up each other's virtual personalities, then go ahead and give this a rent. Otherwise, Battle Fantasia is a title that most gamers should pass on.
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